Cycling across the Swiss Alps

Cycling across the Swiss Alps

After a week-long break, I finally left Wetzikon on late rainy morning. I had waited for the worst of the storm to pass, but new drops had begun to fall after I had left the house. Before long, I was cycling in full rain gear. I was in low spirits, low gear, low speed. Even the most weather proof clothes can’t shed your mood from the weather.

At the foothills of the Alps

Just before leaving Zurich had come an email from a colleague. He was encouraging me to apply for a job. He thought I had my chances and the job promised to be excellent, with a long-term perspective. What was particularly attractive was the prospect to meet again old colleagues and have sufficient job stability to work together on projects we had in mind for years. I even thought of changing my route to cycle there and increase my chances. A negative side was to move to an entirely new place and have to start again from scratch with language learning and social life. I was not sure to be ready for that yet. I decided to leave myself a few days on the bike to think about it. But for now, I was only thinking of the bad weather and of the friends I was leaving behind in Zurich.

Shortly after lunch, I was 1000 km from my starting point in northern France. I was at the foot of the Alps, a wall of shadows disappearing in the gray skies. A few photos later my new Brooks leather saddle was already changing colour in the rain. I had been told to be very careful to keep it dry, especially during the initial break-in process, when the saddle was acquiring its shape. And since my butt comfort was depending on it, I rushed for a wipe and hurried back onto the saddle to protect it from the rain. I would now need a plastic bag ready to cover it at all times.

When I passed the gate of the Alps at Ziegelbrücke, the rain finally stopped. My mood and speed directly improved, as if I was just some kind of advanced barometer on wheels. For the next 30 km I was cycling along the shores of the Walensee, an elongated glacial lake with steep mountains on its sides, reminding of Norwegian fjords. As the skies began to clear up, the light on the mountain walls made for photo opportunities well worth the morning rain.

I put up my tent in a campsite I knew at the end of the lake. It was relatively busy as one could expect on a summer Saturday, but the view from Walenstadt is unbeatable. I took a bath in the lake, which was still cold from the rain. After dinner I slipped into my new sleeping sheets. There were slightly heavier than the mummy linen I had used for years, but the extra square centimeters of fabric were so much comfort. And they were green and the label said cocoon. After sleeping indoors for a week, I was happy to be back to my foldable moving home.

The next day, I woke up to clear blue skies. I continued to cycle east and passed into the Rhine Valley. I went to Liechtenstein just so I could write in my blog that I’ve been to Liechtenstein. I cycled out of the country through a little pass to the south, and noticed that at least one thing that Liechtenstein and Swiss people had in common was to confuse pass roads with racetracks for expensive sports cars.

When I saw that Calenda beer was the served at the restaurants, I knew I was in the Grisons, a Swiss canton which hosts three official languages, and is many times larger the country of Liechtenstein. I cycled through the land of Heidi and impressive vineyards in Landquart. When the valley turned westwards I had tailwinds so strong that I felt bad for cyclists coming the other way, even those without luggage.

There was another little pass with steep unpaved roads, and then I was in Thusis, where I spent my second night in the Alps. I had a good memory from staying in the forested camping of Thusis off season, but this time all the bike travelers were directed to an ugly piece of land at the foot of tall building blocks, that was definitely not worth the 26 Swiss francs paid for it. There was still space under the trees, but apparently the shade was reserved to park cars and caravans.

Albula Pass and mountain surprise

It is impressive how deep the Rhine Valley penetrates into the Alps. So far, I had cycled two days in the mountains with next to no elevation gain. But this was going to change. Thusis was located at the entrance of two deep gorges, and the road started climbing steep right from the town. I was following the tracks of the Rhaetian railroad, an impressive train network that crosses the Alpes through multiple passes between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy.

The climb to the Albula Pass was long. The road had few switchbacks, but it was steep. For the most part I was on the lowest gear. Slowly, the landscape became more Alpine. The smells were changing and in villages, streets became narrower. Deciduous trees were replaced by pine forests and then the alps, where I could hear marmots in the distance.

When I reached the pass it was already late afternoon. I was exhausted and thought of staying at the old mountain hospice at the top. But due to the pandemic, rooms could not be shared and the hotel was full. Threatening clouds were gathering above the pass, so I began to cycle down on the other side, the side of the Inn River, which flows into the Danube. I was leaving the catchment of the North Sea for that of the Black Sea. This is when my mascot decided to get out of the bags to breathe some fresh mountain air.

I stopped for some shopping at La Punt. The cashier asked if I wanted to keep stamps for my next visit or if she could leave them for the woman next in queue. This is how I met Christine. Then something I thought impossible in Switzerland happened. Christine invited me to pitch my tent in her small garden full of Alpine flowers, get a warm shower at her place, and even prepared a salad for me. She had done some bike touring in France, and still dreamed to one day cycle along the Rhône River, and enjoy the apricots, melons and éclairs au chococat which do not grow in Engadin. So we had a lot to talk about, and I felt glad that the pass hotel had been full.

Grüezi glaciers and Alpine flowers

On the next day I went for a short walk in the mountains. After the pass climb of the previous day, I wanted to do something relaxing, so I took the Muottas Muragl funicular and took the easiest path from there. The Engadine, the upper valley of the Inn, is like no other in the Alps. Its flat and wide bottom is perched at an altitude of nearly 2000 m, and filled with large mountain lakes and larch forests. The Maloja Pass at the valley’s end is barely higher, so the Engadine is also a fairly important axis for car and train traffic despite its high elevation. It hosts several towns, and perhaps most famously the ski resort of St. Moritz.

The alps were full of wildflowers. Here as in the valley, it was still spring. The skies were cloudy and the light silver, reflecting on the mineral landscape of the Grisons. I had not expected to see much of the mountains, but an opening in the afternoon let appear the snow-covered glaciers of the Piz Palü, and the famous Bianco Grat, the ridge of ice that alpinists follow to reach the region’s highest mountain and easternmost four-thousander in the Alps, Piz Bernina. The hiking path was also busy, and at the end I became so tired of saying “grüezi” that I began to look forward leaving Switzerland.

Nevertheless, I ended up staying most of the day in the mountains. I thought again of the job my colleague advised, but wanted to pursue the experiment of working on tour for a bit longer. So I decided to keep track with the itinerary I had in mind. When I cycled back to La Punt, more rain was on its way. I picked up my panniers at Christine’s place and left a card to thank her again for her kindness. I spent the night in Chapella. With 30 km this was my shortest day on the bike so far.

I had one more pass to cycle before leaving the Swiss Alps. In the morning more rain was announced, so I booked a simple hotel in Mals, Italy, where I comfortably work on my photos. I cycled the last kilometres to Zernez, and then began the ascent to the Ofen Pass. The road felt again steep, and there was a long downhill section which I had not seen on the map. Nearly the entire climb takes place in the coniferous forests of the Swiss national park. The valley slopes seemed very unstable and I could only imagine how much work was needed to maintain the pass road.

The first drops fell right when I reached the pass and left the Black Sea catchment for that of the Mediterranean. On the other side was a long downhill through the Val Müstair, perhaps one of the most remote valleys of Switzerland. I expected some sort of health check at the border to Italy but was welcomed by heavy rain instead. After 16 days on the road and more than 1000 km through six countries, I was now in southern Europe.

The route (5 days, 287 km)


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